$Texas, Journalism, Me Myself and Ty

Lost en translation

“Your name doesn’t translate,” she said.

I knew it didn’t. I had asked Spanish-speaking friends about it back before I lived in South Texas.

Mark is Marcos. Paul is Pablo. Ty … Ty becomes just a variation of the pronunciation.

Either a long or short e sound takes the y’s place, leading to a “Tee” or a “Teh.” Hardly anything exciting.

But it wasn’t long before I realized that there are many ways that Ty doesn’t translate into Spanish.

*

When I interviewed for this job on the southern tip of Texas, I said I was interested in moving to Brownsville for the cultural melange of a city on the border, but the editor kind of laughed it off, reminding me that the area is more than 80 percent Hispanic.

Now that I’ve been here for a couple of months, I’ve found that if I want to see any cultural melange, I have to be the one to … uh … melange it.

It’s not that living in Brownsville, the largest city in the Rio Grande Valley is too much like Mexico. It’s nothing quite like Mexico. It isn’t anything like the rest of Texas, either, though. And Texas is nothing like the rest of the United States.

This area could be a nation all its own.

But there is a lot of Spanish. I’ve had to navigate a number of assignments where I’m called to arrange for translations or contextually feel my way through conversations for a time.

Almost everyone understands English, yes, but I still have a nagging urge to be able to speak and understand Spanish when necessary, and not just when I’m ordering burgers or tacos.

*

I took Spanish throughout grade school and into college, always with decent grades, but language skills have always been described to me as “use it or lose it.” Without daily practice, my conjugation prowess faded, leaving a dusty vocabulary of words that hardly qualify me as a beginner or an intermediate.

My Spanish-speaking friends occasionally get excited when I name certain things in Spanish or carry on a conversation en Espanol. The truth is it’s just another example of my overactive memory. I have memorized countless factoids over the years, some for personal gain, others for academia and some just because I can’t manage to clear them out. Stored among them are a few hundred words in Spanish.

I have words, but I can’t use them.

And after re-purchasing my college Spanish textbook (Fo’ free thanks to a shipping error!) I realized why.

Ayuda me mi libro! Por favor!

One of my Spanish-speaking friends said I would never learn to speak another language, truly, by studying it in a textbook, insisting that the best way to learn to properly habla is to just try, but I knew it wouldn’t be that easy.

One reason, I surmised, is because when I speak in English, just as when I write, I see the words in my head like a grand rolling teleprompter. I talk like I write, which is the true reason why people say they can hear my voice in my writing.

It’s great for being a writer. I never have to search for my voice — it’s right there ringing in my ears just as it’s stretching across the screen, but when you’re trying to speak and comprehend spoken words that don’t always immediately make their definitions known, it’s something else.

I can hear the words, but if I can’t hear, then see them in my head, I am generally lost.

*

Recently I’ve realized that exacerbating my inability to see these words is the the fact that Ty does not translate into Spanish. At all.

Typically, Ty Johnson’s strength flows from the Force … er … rather from his command of the English language.

Ask anyone who has ever spent an extended amount of time with me; I never stop talking.

I make conversation with waitstaff, with people in line, with strangers I pass on the street … nothing fazes me when I start talking and I have been known to talk myself into and out of (and occasionally back into) a lot of trouble over the years.

Flirting, ribbing, charming, shit-talking — these are the only things Ty Johnson excels at. (Well, along with driving in reverse.)

So when I’m out with friends and Spanish begins to become the dominant idioma, I am no longer Ty.

It’s Tee. Or Te. Or something like that, but whoever I become, he doesn’t have the command of the dominant language being spoken necessary to speak out, to rib people, to charm women, to make meaningful conversation.

It’s not that I’m not following what’s being discussed (I’ve gotten especially good at following conversations that concern me), but I can’t contribute the way I would in English. I’m not the center of attention. I’m unable to facilitate a conversation. I can’t make a loud interjection that sends everyone into a fit of laughter. I’m unable to quietly contemplate what’s being discussed and then volunteer my opinion in a well-thought-out manner.

In Spanish, I’m an introvert, forced to keep my thoughts to myself because I don’t have the words to share them with the rest of the class.

I shudder to think what face I make when I’m pressed about something in Spanish and realize I don’t understand. Oftentimes when I’m caught off guard I can’t even utter a “Que?” or a humble “No hablo Espanol.” I just move my mouth as if I’m speaking in bastardized Spanglish and loose a few “Uh”s and the person addressing me usually manages to speak enough English to ask me the question in a manner I understand.

It’s almost always a stupid question that I should have understood, but missed out on because I wasn’t paying attention or wasn’t expecting Spanish, so I ultimately feel like the monolingual imperialist asshole gringo I truly am.

*

I know, now, why this new language scares me so much. I can’t be me en Espanol.

You can’t translate Ty.

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